Now that NaNoWriMo has come and gone, writers are starting to think about revisions. One of the most important elements of a story is the first chapter (or opening). There is a lot of pressure to get the first chapter right. After all, a great deal rides on it – it gives readers a sense of your writing style, it showcases your protagonist’s voice, it must create an immediate connection to your protagonist, it must hook readers, it must be engaging, it must show the character’s normal world – the list goes on.
One important element is the opening chapter goal. This helps set the stage for your book and gives readers a hint of what they can expect to happen in the story. The opening chapter goal should be related to the main overall character goal, but it should not be the main goal. It should also contain conflict and stakes. Note that I refer to it as an opening chapter goal, but the opening goal may go on for more than one chapter.
Before we get into the first chapter goal, I need to back up for just a moment and talk about the two most important elements needed to craft a successful story, which are:
What does the protagonist want?
What is their fear, flaw, or misbelief?
These elements are the basis for creating the opening story goal and the plot. Note that plot is the tool writers use to shape how the character will struggle to reach their goal (what they want) and overcome their fear, flaw, or misbelief by the end. Plot is a tool that forces characters to change, and it is the reason you should know what your protagonist wants BEFORE you start plotting. What the protagonist wants is what drives the story. If the protagonist doesn’t want anything, then the story meanders from one event to another without an overall point or purpose which eventually leaves the reader dissatisfied.
Here is an example of what a character (Justine) wants more than anything in the world and what her fear is:
Want: To collect medicinal plants from the forest for her healing business. Right now, she buys them at a much higher price from a local farmer.
Fear: She’s deathly afraid of the mountain lions in the forest.
More succinctly put, Justine wants the courage to go into the forest to collect medicinal plants – this is what she’ll pursue through the entire story (more about this later).
With these elements in mind, the opening chapter(s) will:
Show references to Justine’s desire to collect plants for her healing business. Show that she wants this more than anything in the world and why this is important to her (her motivation).
Show what Justine’s normal day-to-day life is like, including her family and the love of her life.
Show how Justine pays a much steeper price to the local farmer who grows and collects the herbs and plants himself.
Show how Justine is deathly afraid of the mountain lions in the forest (or at least give a hint of it). Perhaps she walks up to the edge of the forest, fully intending to conquer her fear and go in, but she can’t, and ends up at the farm to buy her medicinal plants and herbs. Perhaps readers don't know just yet why she's afraid to go in (leaves a story question).
Using this information, we can define a chapter one goal for Justine that will be related to her overall main goal, which is to obtain the courage to collect medicinal plants for her healing business. In this case, Justine’s opening chapter goal is to help a local child with an illness. Conflict can be added by showing the local farmer raising his prices, telling her he hasn’t had a chance to forage for a particular plant yet, or he’s sold out, making it more difficult for Justine to get the healing medicines she needs to help the boy, or he’ll die (stakes).
The above information will set the scene and show Justine in her normal world and that healing people through natural remedies is her life, even though she must pay higher prices to do it because she has a fear of mountain lions. It shows her family and that her significant other is the love of her life. It also shows her opening chapter goal – to save a young boy, which will be related to her overall goal of going into the forest to forage for the medicinal plants herself.
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When Does the Main Goal Come Into Play?
The main goal comes into play in this particular story when the local farmer dies from a deadly virus. The townspeople burn his farm to the ground fearing the farmer and anything related to him is contagious and deadly. (Inciting event because it interrupts Justine’s way of life in a big way)
The illness begins to sweep through the village anyway. The virus is now affecting her neighbors, and most of all, the love of Justine’s life. This is when the main overall goal kicks in for Justine: Now she must make a decision: travel to other villages dozens of miles away in hopes they have the plant medicines she needs to try to cure the virus (and return in time) or go into the forest where she knows the plants do exist. (First plot point – the decision).
Perhaps Justine will decide to go to a village that isn’t too far away, only to discover they don’t have the plants or medicine, and that the mountain lions in their forest are far worse than the ones in her village.
Justine will realize her only choice is to go into the forest, but she doesn’t have a clue where the plants she needs are located. She doesn’t know how far she’ll have to travel to get them, how many mountain lions there are, or when they hunt. She doesn’t know exactly what would work to protect herself or whether there is shelter inside the forest. She will have setback after setback until the midpoint when she will be at her lowest. That’s when she’ll have a realization and know how to fight off the mountain lions (but there will still be a battle before she wins the prize and finally overcomes her fears). By the end of the story, Justine will know how to deal with the lions and she’ll be able to go into the forest and collect plants whenever she needs to.
Of course, this is only a rudimentary example, there are other elements that come into play for the opening chapter (some mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog post), but this will give a strong foundation for what you need in order to craft your opening chapter goal.
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